By Susan Carter

I’ve just been to a great lecture by John Bitchener on giving good feedback on doctoral writing. John has intensively researched the topic, as his website shows, and his books are very helpful. He began the lecture by looking at some of the causes of doctoral writing difficulties. In this post I am turning his observations into a checklist that students could use for self-auditing.

But before we begin, a caveat: self-auditing, like writing review from others, is often disconcerting. Those questioning processes can hammer your identity and sense of self-worth in unpleasant ways.

It is important that at doctoral level, especially in the early stages, students are made aware of the way that critical review, including self-review, is a method for strengthening your academic identity and worth. It is a bit like tempering metal: you get stronger metal after heating it up and bashing it.

So yes, for humans, this is uncomfortable; nonetheless, all academics go through routine hammering from reviewers. Supervisors do well to explain this, and show some of the snide reviewer comments they have received over time.

Now to apply the heat and hammer. If students feel that feedback on their writing is more negative than they expected, they could consider how the following may have contributed.

  • A gap between past experience at undergraduate or masters level and doctoral level, for example, if prior educational experiences or qualifications were achieved in a different country from where they are doing their doctorate.
  • Incorrect assumptions about what a doctoral thesis should be—it is longer, more defensive and with more emphasis on original contribution than they might have understood. It also often builds new theories and expands methods.
  • Misalignment between theory and practice, or between knowledge and application, and uncertainty as to how to work between these dichotomies.
  • Lack of awareness of what theory does (as well as what it is).
  • The appropriate use of hedging and emphasis (or what John terms ‘boosters’). The capacity to use English to get just the right degree of emphasis can mean the difference between a statement being convincing or simply wrong.
  • Unawareness of the need to be developing an argument at macro levels—the thesis of the thesis—and at micro levels within chapters.

On reflection, I think this suggestion for students’ self-auditing does several positive things. It improves the writing because students see what is not quite working. It gives students agency for their own learning as writers, cutting the umbilical cord dependency on supervisors to always show the way. Perhaps most importantly, it teaches the habit of positive critical reflection, one I believe that academics need to survive and to be good academic citizens. Chris Park (2007) points out that one contribution of doctoral work is the fully-fledged independent researcher. Critical self-auditing of writing quality is seldom easy, smooth and comfortable; finally graduating with a PhD is so satisfying partly because it is recognises the high research quality produced by all that hammering.



This post comes from the notes that I took during Professor John Bitchener’s Feedback on doctoral writing at Epsom Campus, The University of Auckland, 10 September 2014.


Park, C. (2007) Redefining the Doctorate: a Discussion Paper, York: Higher Education Academy.